From Schism to Synergy

It was 1995. I had joined a company as Group Financial Manager after consulting to them for several months, and it was beginning to dawn on me what a huge challenge I had taken on. The company was in trouble, and the MD had asked me to fix one division in particular – a manufacturing division that was fraught with problems, from worker unrest to product quality, from capacity constraints to inventory issues.

My girlfriend and I had decided to spend a long weekend at the Kruger Park on a hiking safari, and since Angela was driving, on the way there I started a book that I had wanted to read but had not had the time. It was titled ‘The Goal’ by Eli Goldratt, and I had been referred to it by a colleague more than a year before. It made compelling reading, and by the time we got back after the long weekend, I had finished the book. On the Tuesday I hit the ground running and started implementing the methods spoken about in the book, and just 6 weeks later the result was a turnaround, from R250k per month to R750k per month and we were already cash flow positive a month later…

Anyone who has been engaged in Management Consultancy will tell you that such an achievement is unusual to say the least. What was it that turned a ‘Dog’ – the term used in industry for a failing business that should be closed or sold – into a ‘Star’, and so quickly?

Eli Goldratt is an Israeli physicist who has revolutionised the world of business and of organisational planning and optimisation, and he has done so by applying the cold hard logic of science to organisational systems, whether private or government, whether large or small, whether social or formal. The basis of his ‘Theory of Constraints’ is simple and yet far-reaching, since it has application to any system you can possibly imagine. For ‘system’ we mean any set of parts that interact and which has boundaries that enable us to recognise it as such. So a car is a system, as is a washing machine or a computer. But so are the less obvious ones like government, a tennis club, a human being (or any animal for that matter), a business or a market sector. They are all systems in which resources interact through processes in order to achieve outcomes.

It is the nature of systems that we must explore next, since they have certain consistent characteristics – dynamics common to all systems – that make systems predictable and manageable to greater or lesser extents depending on their size and complexity.

Eli’s first insight was that although we think of the parts of a system as ‘separate’ – we break them into departments, sectors, components, ingredients and divisions – they cannot be regarded as such if we want to think about the functioning of the system as a whole. When we do this, we must consider them to be interdependent, not separate. Separation is a myth propagated by decades of account-think and individualism. No part can be considered as ‘independent’ – if it is, it’s no longer a part of the system.

So whether we’re thinking about the ingredients in a cake, or the components of a watch, or the departments in an organisation, the moment we think about the whole, the parts lose their independent identity. The only time we need to think about them as separate is when we need to replace them, and even then we must maintain the context of how they fit in to the whole they will be integrated into.

So Animal Welfare SA needs to think of itself less as separate and autonomous units and more as a collective whole who, if they work more closely together, can achieve great things on behalf of the animals. There are several basic principles and tactics that must be adopted if this is to happen:

  1. Share Resources – this includes information. Some think it important to keep their home-checker lists ‘secret’ so that only a select few have access to them. This is counterproductive, leading to time-wasting and duplication of effort. Set rules as to how the information should be used, but if you would not refuse someone (or indeed an animal) a home check – why WOULD you? – then it makes no sense to deprive others of access to such information.
  2. Agree policies and procedures – set rules that all agree to abide by.
  3. Establish communication channels.
  4. Clear decision protocols – who makes decisions, under what conditions.
  5. Communicate and resolve disputes openly and rationally, without the personal attacks and adolescent behaviour so prevalent. If necessary get someone to mediate. But disassociation is abdication and it is immature and counterproductive.

The second insight I gained from Goldratt’s work was counter-intuitive. I was already an experienced consultant with many manufacturing environments under my belt when I read The Goal, and so when he told the story of the factory in the book, I understood exactly what he was talking about. I had seen the same problems in every single factory I had ever seen. I could get individual sections to perform better quite easily, but getting the entire factory to perform better was far more difficult; so much so that at times it seemed impossible, because each section was managed, measured and incentivised separately, with the result that what was good for the parts was not good for the whole. In order to get the whole optimised, one would have to sacrifice the performance of some of the parts – one could not have both. The insight that integration and it’s resulting synergy[1] was more important than maximising the performance of any of the parts in isolation was contrary to everything in the Management textbooks, but it was correct. In fact, the scientific method of linear programming had established this fact a long time before, but somehow this had never been assimilated into business management.

As a consequence, the simple rule that any system’s performance is limited by it’s slowest process is always true: the bottleneck determines the entire system’s capacity. So in a given system, it will not help to produce more than the bottleneck capacity before the bottleneck since it cannot process that volume, and it will not help to have additional capacity after the bottleneck; it cannot feed that capacity. This does not mean we should try and balance capacity, since an imbalanced capacity gives us opportunity to create buffers and catch up, but it does illustrate the concept.

In mechanical systems where the bottleneck can be calculated, determining where to focus if the system is to be improved is a simple matter – one must increase the capacity at the bottleneck to increase the capacity of the entire system.. In systems that are not mechanical, but are more abstract, a little more thinking is involved.

Let’s use examples from day-to-day reality to better illustrate this insight. For an athlete to perform at their very best, it will not matter that they have the strongest muscles if their heart cannot send nutrients to those muscles. A weak heart or cardiovascular system may become an athlete’s ‘bottleneck’ if they do not develop it sufficiently to make the whole human system operate at it’s optimum. All the weight training in the world will not make them a better athlete. A business that delivers the best service but does not communicate this effectively to the market has a sales bottleneck. Developing new exciting products will not make them profitable – they need to employ some good sales/marketing staff. A Government that makes all the promises in the world through outstanding communication channels but fails to address service delivery issues may have a competency ‘bottleneck’ which will not be addressed by deploying more convincing mouthpieces…

So not matter how good you are as a rescuer or rehabilitator or steriliser or rehomer, your performance a an individual is less important than how you integrate with all the others in the sector.

To put it another way: if you wish to improve the functioning of any system, and especially a complex one, you need to focus on the limiting factor, the problem that is leading to the entire system operating sub optimally or resulting in failure to achieve the system’s purpose.. Next. work our what is causing the problem. It may be easy to address the symptoms that lead us to the problem, but that will never correct the problem. For example, if we have a problem in a manufacturing process and it constantly leads to problems in the ‘assembly’ process, we will waste an enormous amount of time reworking bad products and spend money doing so that we could avoid spending if we obviate the problem completely. This is what Dr Deming referred to as Total Quality Management – don’t fix the product, fix the problem. In other words, don’t address the outcome by focusing on symptoms, address the root cause so that the symptom disappears.

Application to Animal Welfare in South Africa

Animal Welfare is a ‘system’. It is an interactive set of resources and processes directed at achieving the outcome of improved Animal Welfare. It’s a subsystem of the system called ‘Society’ and it has many contributing parts.

The problem with these parts is that they all think of themselves as independent. They simply cannot be so, since they all operate in the same sector and every effort by each individual or organisation impacts on the efforts of every other individual or organisation. We are inextricably linked, whether we like it or not. Our efforts are INTERDEPENDENT.

In the factory in 1995, the first step I took was that I dismantled ‘departmentitis’. It is a separatist disease in complex systems in which parts think of themselves as isolated. I told them everyone was in one single team and that the benefits of working together would far outweigh the benefits of each working independently, albeit at their best. In this way we destroyed the ‘them and us’ barrier, and got everyone to collaborate and coordinate rather than point fingers and condemn. It took a while to get their heads around it, but before long they ‘got it’. One of the secrets here was getting the Union Steward on my side and we became allies, moving from ‘me against you because of the problem’ to ‘me and you against the problem’. This is not idealist. It worked in a very real world beset with prejudices and mistrust, and yet we prevailed, not because of clever technology but because we started by focusing on a mindset. We moved from ‘Me’ to ‘We’. And I subsequently did the same thing in many other organisations.

So the first question Animal Welfare in SA needs to ask is: ‘Why are we here?’

If the object of the exercise is to enhance the lives of animals in SA, then it does not help for everyone to go off and ‘do their own thing’, the so-common cliché of the isolationist. We need all hands aboard, and we row better and faster together than apart. There is an enormous amount of energy and time taken up with confrontation and condemnation as individuals assert their need for autonomy and separate themselves from others, as more and more cliques are created and the laager mentality deepens and entrenches rifts. If people are truly focused on helping the animals, the rest doesn’t matter. Apparently, however, some think disinvesting is the path to improvement, and they are mistaken. More investment is required, not less. More training, teaching, mentoring, discussing and all of the actions that lead to a sustainable future, not excommunication from the AW ‘In’ crowd…

There is a second and more crucial insight that AWSA needs to ‘get’.

In 1995 I had to work out, once I had the people aboard, how to focus this new intent from the workforce. I understood clearly from Goldratt’s book the first step is to find the bottleneck: what was the resource or process that was stopping us from achieving the best possible results? It took us a week to find it: the paintshop, where everything slowed to a crawl because painting took longer because the paint had to dry and there was only one drying line. We added a shift and suddenly the Assembly section had more work than they could cope with. The job of the rest of the factory? Feed the paint shop! It’s the second step: subjugate everything else to the bottleneck, which becomes the ‘boss’ of the system. Why?

Because it doesn’t matter what you do everywhere else – the bottleneck will see to it that your efforts to improve are wasted.

In Animal Welfare, we do not need to look very far to find the bottleneck: it is at the very beginning of the process. There are too many unwanted animals being born. Everything else should be secondary to addressing this fundamental problem.

It is sobering to consider the fact that both euthanasia and rehoming address symptoms. So if AW was a factory, we would never, by addressing the symptoms, solve the problem. In fact, given the sheer volume of the input and the growth of the population, it will become worse.

The next phase in the Goldratt process, once the bottleneck has been identified and is being given priority, is to find a way to remove the bottleneck, or in other words, to make the bottleneck a non-bottleneck. There are a number of ways to do this: one can throw resources at the bottleneck (overtime, additional staff, better technology), outsource the process, or change the system in such a manner that the bottleneck no longer exists. Of course, this means that the bottleneck will move to another process or resource, and that means we start all over again; in the real world there is always a bottleneck because we do not have infinite resources. But every time you remove a bottleneck, your capacity is increased permanently.

In the AW scenario, there are a number of strategies that we can employ that will certainly reduce the effects of the current bottleneck, which is that there are too many animals being born:

  1. Mass Sterilisations, preferably with support from Government
  2. Breeding Restrictions in respect of Registered Breeders through legislation including sterilisation and vaccination prerequisites.
  3. Banning or capping of Puppy Mills and legislation in respect of sterilisation and inoculation.
  4. Implement Innovations with regard to sterilisation technology, e.g. Calchlorin or the recent vaccine developed, making sterilisation the work of an Animal Welfare Assistant rather than an expensive vet, thereby reducing the cost and increasing the capacity of the AW community for doing sterilisations.
  5. Enact Legislation preventing private owners from owning unsterilised animals

If actions are taken that focus on these, we will start making headway against the Tsunami that is the companion animal population. But ‘business as usual’ welfare will not do it, neither will ‘more volunteers’ and nor will more networking. They will not alter the bottleneck one iota.

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” ~ Henry David Thoreau


Derek du Toit

[1] Optimisation of Interdependence